Known simply as ‘Dr Deb’ to so many of the country’s top sportspeople, Deb Robinson is taking her phenomenal medical experience to the forefront of world rugby. Jim Kayes reports.
Richie McCaw says his long relationship with Deb Robinson was built on total trust.
“You just know she’ll make the right decision,” he says of Robinson, the former All Blacks captain’s doctor throughout his outstanding 14-year career.
It’s a trait he says Robinson brought to her time as doctor not only to the All Blacks, but also the Canterbury and Crusaders teams he was a part of. And he’s confident she will carry that with her into her latest role, on the council table of World Rugby.
Robinson is part of a push by rugby’s international governing body to bring more women through at an administration level.
She’s been to one meeting and, although she hasn’t had specific duties assigned to her yet, she believes her medical training and experience will see her work in the area of player welfare.
McCaw knows she’ll be a success.
“She has a great understanding and feel for what is right. You know she’ll do the right thing and it’s great to have that trust in her,” he says.
“As a player, she knew when to tell you to toughen up and carry on, and when it was time to come off. She would never put someone in harm’s way, but as an athlete there are also times when you just have to carry on.”
The pair shared many such moments during McCaw’s distinguished career, but perhaps never more so than at the 2011 World Cup.
Going into the semi-final against Australia, McCaw had hurt his foot. He suspected it was broken. Robinson agreed. But they decided he wouldn’t have it x-rayed.
If they did, and it was broken, it would probably mean McCaw would be put in a moon boot or a cast. His tournament would be over.
So they hatched a plan. McCaw would keep the seriousness of his injury private. He wouldn’t tell the coaches or his teammates and would hide his pain from the media.
He did it confident in Robinson’s promise that he couldn’t do more harm to his damaged foot. She did it confident that the selectors would judge McCaw on how he played.
It worked to painful perfection.
“She gave me confidence knowing that it wouldn’t get worse and it was the pain I had to deal with,” McCaw recalls with a chuckle.
Robinson had exploded into prominence earlier in the tournament when she’d come to the aid of Sonny Bill Williams after he ripped his jersey during the match against Tonga.
As the team’s doctor, she could go onto the field at any time so she grabbed a replacement jersey from All Blacks’ manager Darren Shand and ran out.
The snag was that the adidas jersey was a tight fit. A really tight fit. So for a few minutes in the middle of a packed Eden Park, and in front of a global television audience, Robinson wrestled the torn jersey off Williams, then helped him wriggle into the new one.
Photos of her and the rather muscular Williams went viral. Women swooned, men were jealous and Robinson became part of a little sports sensation.
“I remember grabbing the shirt from Shandy and thinking as I ran out, ‘I don’t know if this is the best idea’,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t turn back. The thing is I didn’t realise how tight the jersey was.”
The tattered jersey later sold at auction for $6500, and Robinson’s starring role in the event is immortalised in Google’s search engine.
Robinson handled her flash of fame in the typical no-fuss manner that made her so popular during her seven years as the All Blacks’ doctor.
Mention to her now that she was a pioneer, and she says simply: “Yeah, I guess I was”.
She wasn’t the first woman to work alongside the All Blacks. Jane Dent was the team’s media manager in the late 1990s.
But Robinson was certainly the first to be completely welcomed into the inner sanctum of the All Blacks’ dressing room.
Her relationship with rugby began when she was asked to be the Canterbury doctor for the 2001 NPC. Steve Hansen was the head coach and they won.
Robinson was then asked by Robbie Deans to join the Crusaders the following year, when they took out the Super Rugby title without dropping a game.
“I must admit I thought it was a pretty easy job – two titles in two campaigns,” she says.
Born in Gisborne, Robinson played representative hockey for Marlborough and Canterbury, describing herself as “an okay player”.
Her first foray into sports medicine came in 2000 when she worked with the New Zealand team at the Sydney Olympics.
She was also the Silver Ferns doctor from 2004 to 2006, before she got the biggest gig in New Zealand sport, the All Blacks.
Robinson credits Hansen with the ease of her move into rugby. “He told me to dive in, to just get involved, and I never felt out of place,” she says.
That’s quite remarkable given that rugby didn’t exactly have a great track record for promoting and welcoming women into roles that took them beyond preparing the food for the after-match.
Add to that, Robinson is gay. It’s not something she talks about publicly that much, simply because she is a private woman.
“I never hid it from the boys and they were very welcoming,” she says, adding that Hansen was again superb in this context.
“I think he thought it would be good for the players, and it was probably easier being a woman,” she says, before adding that she doesn’t think it would matter at all these days whether the person was male or female.
McCaw, a relative newbie himself in the Canterbury team in 2001, says there was no fuss about having a woman in the dressing room.
“It was never an issue and she was never precious about fitting in. The guys were respectful around her and if she thought something was up, she told you,” he says.
Robinson won’t be shy about offering her opinion at the World Rugby council board table either.
She was unsure when asked to join the council, telling New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey she was a doctor with almost no knowledge of governance.
Impey replied: “We can teach you governance; we can’t teach you experience”.
Robinson’s wealth of experience includes a stint with the Black Ferns last year as they won another World Cup. It was, she readily suggests, an overwhelming experience.
She was in awe of how hard they trained and how much they jammed into their day, many juggling work and parenting with the demands of a high-performance team.
She was impressed by their willingness to learn, especially as, for many, rugby was a second or third sport.
But what truly blew her away was the Black Ferns’ cultural connections. “It was overwhelming and amazing to see how important it was, and that they embraced not only the Maori side of the team, but the Samoan and Tongan too.”
Up close, she realised just how incredible Portia Woodman is, and was amazed at the astute rugby brain of Kelly Brazier. But she saves her highest praise for Sarah Goss, the openside flanker who also captains the sevens team.
“She is a little bit of a female McCaw,” Robinson says.
Now she’ll take that depth of knowledge to World Rugby, where she’s been impressed at the steps being taken to increase the influence women have in the game.
But there is work to be done.
“And it’s not just at the elite level of the game. Rugby is played at all levels across a lot of countries and by many cultures. And about 25 percent of those who play the game are female,” she says.
But Robinson won’t be restricting herself to just women’s issues. That’s not her style.